It’s difficult to pinpoint the identity of the offense in Baltimore so far this season. It’s even harder to come up with any positive descriptors; frustrating, predictable, conservative, and underachieving come to mind. It has just been … illogical.
Offensive coordinator Marc Trestman’s pass-heavy play-calling went against the reputation the Ravens have built over the past decade as a tough, physical AFC North team that wants to punish defenses with an unrelenting ground game and throw the ball over your head with an aggressive downfield passing attack. The offense that dialed up 46 passes to just 19 rush attempts in a predominantly one-score game against the Redskins on Sunday, that eked out just 10 points, and that came up empty-handed on its final 10 possessions against the previously 24th-ranked defense by DVOA is lost.
John Harbaugh said it after the game: "We have to find our offense." And so the search has started. Baltimore’s decision to fire Trestman after 21 months and hand the keys over to former quarterbacks coach Marty Mornhinweg sends a clear message: It’s time for the Ravens to take back their identity.
We may never know why Trestman decided to mostly ignore running back Terrance West in the second half of Baltimore’s 16–10 loss to Washington, but it was the final straw for Harbaugh and the Ravens front office, with both reportedly growing increasingly frustrated with the offensive coordinator’s pass-happy game plan. West looked explosive and elusive as he rushed for 60 yards on seven attempts (8.6 yards per carry) in the first half. His best run came on the Ravens’ first drive, when he took a handoff on third-and-1 and turned it into 35 yards.
Baltimore carried a 10–6 lead into the locker room, but after the break, West got just four more carries (and he gained 35 yards on those runs — 8.75 YPC). Trestman instead leaned heavily on Joe Flacco’s arm, primarily with isolation timing-and-separation-based routes in the short area. Flacco completed just 14 of 24 (58 percent) passes for 89 yards in the half, while the Ravens punted five times and ended the game by turning the ball over on downs. For those keeping score at home, picking up 89 yards on 24 pass attempts (3.7 yards per attempt) is really, really bad.
Pinpoint accuracy on tight-window throws has never really been Flacco’s strength. If he’s anything, he’s a downfield gunslinger — and the Ravens need to put that element back into their offense. In 2013, Flacco’s average depth of target (aDOT) was 9.5 yards downfield (ninth among throwers that played at least 50 percent of their team’s snaps), per Pro Football Focus. In 2014, it was 9.0 yards (tied for 10th). In 2015, it dropped to 7.7 yards (23rd), and thus far this year, Flacco has an average depth of target of 8.3 yards (19th). That’s a shorter aDOT than Blaine Gabbert (8.7 yards). Blaine Gabbert! Flacco has completed just four passes this year that have traveled 20-plus yards in the air (24th). The dink-and-dunk offense in Baltimore must meet some sort of macabre Edgar Allan Poe–style end.
To fix this thing, Mornhinweg doesn’t have to ditch the terminology and plays from Trestman’s offense. A wholesale scheme change could be disastrous midseason — there’s just not enough time to install and learn a whole new system — but the team’s tendencies and emphases need to change. It all starts with the run, and a new commitment to the ground game is where Mornhinweg’s play-calling could turn things around for Baltimore, in the same way that the change from Cam Cameron to Jim Caldwell in 2012 turned around the Ravens’ Super Bowl year. Giving West, Buck Allen, and rookie Kenneth Dixon a steady diet of rushing attempts should be Mornhinweg’s first priority.
Flacco’s always been a streaky thrower — he set a Ravens record with 21 straight completions two weeks ago against the Jaguars — so Mornhinweg’s second goal should be establishing a rhythm in the passing game. Like Trestman, Mornhinweg has always favored a West Coast–style, precision-timing offense, but eschewing that for more quick-hitting throws on man coverage to beat screens could help get Flacco into that zone. This year, Baltimore has relied too much on isolation routes to beat coverage, and when Flacco has forced the ball, it’s too often led to turnovers. The Ravens need to use bunch formations, stacked receivers, and presnap motion to scheme receivers open quickly and help create easy wins for Flacco underneath.
From there, there’s a whole world downfield to be explored in the play-action passing game, which is exactly what the Ravens are built to do. Breshad Perriman was a first-round pick because of his 4.24 40 speed and ability to get behind cornerbacks — let him fly. Mike Wallace was signed with the sole idea that he’d be a field-stretching threat in the deep-passing game — he hasn’t been. Baltimore hasn’t mustered much of a deep game at all. Taking shots deep on play-action and bootleg throws could be one way to get these two players more targets downfield.
Play-action works in the midrange, too. The Ravens’ investments in tight ends that can both block and catch need to be further utilized. Benjamin Watson and Maxx Williams are on injured reserve, but the skill sets that Dennis Pitta and Crockett Gillmore bring give Baltimore strong run/pass options on any play. Baltimore is one of the few holdouts that believe in using a fullback, and Kyle Juszczyk is one of the best pass catchers at that position in the game. Coming onto the field in "heavy" formations with multiple tight ends and a fullback means an opposing defense has to respond in kind with a run-based set, and that often means Pitta, Gillmore, and Juszczyk draw linebackers in coverage. Baltimore needs a run game to exploit this, but could get more from its tight end and fullback pass catchers as the passing attack builds off of that foundation.
The run game needs to be Baltimore’s fastball and the deep-passing game should be its curveball, while a tight end– and fullback-heavy midrange passing attack can be its changeup. The Ravens’ touchdown on their first possession on Sunday was a great example of how a strong run game (West’s 35-yard run came earlier on the drive) can help to set up opportunities in play-action.
No one expects Trestman’s departure to magically fix Baltimore’s offense. The Ravens are dealing with injuries to starting bookend tackles Ronnie Stanley and Ricky Wagner, Flacco is still working his way back to full mobility after last year’s ACL tear, and Baltimore’s collection of offensive weaponry shouldn’t be mistaken for an elite unit. But with a renewed focus on the ground game — and the benefits of more eight-man boxes and a stronger effect of play-action fakes that come with it — Mornhinweg’s crew could surprise some people over the next few weeks. The personnel is there to run the distinctive smashmouth, throw-it-deep style that Harbaugh has always wanted in Baltimore.
The Ravens have what looks like a championship-caliber defense again this year — it’s a group that came into the matchup with Washington ranked fourth in defensive DVOA. Even marginal improvements on offense could make Baltimore a legitimate contender in the AFC. If they can just commit to the run game and remember how to throw the ball deep, 2016 Marty Ball could have the Ravens back in the playoffs.